Zito makes a splash in Modesto

June 11, 2011 

— For one memorable Saturday night, Modesto found itself lost in the rapture of Zitomania.

Much like the way Oakland Athletics fans are in the rooting minority when the Yankees come to town, the bulk of the 5,394 fans at John Thurman Field were cheering for rehabilitating San Francisco lefty Barry Zito and his temporary San Jose teammates.

So, even in defeat for the Modesto Nuts, in this case an 8-3 Giants’ victory, most of the second-largest crowd in Modesto minor-league history went away happy.

And Zito? Despite allowing three runs (two earned) over seven innings, he was overall pleased with his second rehab start on his path back to San Francisco.

“My command was not where I’d like it to be, but it got better toward the end and everything felt better in the last two innings,” Zito said. “It was positive.

“I’m working on the tempo of the delivery — the things that are pretty natural when you’re throwing every day, but getting hurt and having all the time off makes the tempo something I had to find again. And tonight it took me a while to find my rhythm, but I got it.”

Zito sprained tendons in the middle of his right foot during a game in Phoenix on April 16, an injury forcing him to the disabled list for the first time in his 12-year major league career.

“The foot is coming along,” Zito said. “It was a strange injury, so it’s a matter of putting the pieces back together one by one, but I’m at full capacity now.”

The stated plan, at least according to San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, is for Zito to have a few back-to-back outings in excess of 100 pitches before recalling him to the majors.

And since Zito’s place in the Giants’ rotation has been more-than-adequately filled by journeyman Ryan Vogelsong (4-1 in nine starts), the Giants see no reason to rush Zito back and have yet to declare whether his return will be as a starter or reliever.

Zito threw 83 pitches in 6º innings on Monday in Stockton in his first rehab assignment, and followed that with 96 pitches against the Nuts. Modesto scored an unearned run in the first on a walk, the first of two singles off Zito by Josh Rutledge, and an outfield bobble.

Singles by David Christensen and Rutledge produced a run in the third and Nolan Arenado picked on a high 82 mph fastball and sent it over the wall in left for the Nuts’ third run.

Modesto starter Chad Bettis (4-4,) one of three Nuts’ representatives in the upcoming California-Carolina League All-Star Game, gave up five runs (three earned) on 11 hits over 6º innings, and San Jose added three runs in the eighth off reliever Chad Rose.

By that time, Zito’s night was done — 58 strikes, 38 balls, a curve that at times broke like vintage Zito and a fastball that sat at 81 mph and only infrequently reached 84 mph on Modesto’s gun.

“I don’t know what the gun stops at,” Zito said. “I’m still just trying to get guys off-balance and work in and out.”

No, that doesn’t change according to the venue or level of play, and it also doesn’t change whether he’s being backed by a home crowd in excess of 42,000, or a Central Valley crowd huge on its own scale.

The Nuts were expecting a crowd of about 3,500, but tickets started to move fast after Thursday’s announcement that Zito was coming to town. All reserved seats were sold by early Saturday afternoon as it became obvious the home team was about to get receive a financial windfall from Zito’s appearance.

Zito smiled and laughed when told he probably made $20,000 for the home team.

“That’s awesome,” he said. “I noticed there were a lot of people having a great time tonight, and coming back to the valley has been great.

“It’s nice to get back out and play some country baseball. It’s only an hour or two from The City, but this seems like a nice small town and I like the vibe of it.”

NUTS NOTES — This was Zito’s second trip to Modesto. He visited in 1999 as a member of the Visalia Oaks, but did not pitch in a three-game series and was promoted to Double-A after making only eight starts. ... The last time Modesto hosted a famous rehabilitating major leaguer, it also resulted in a huge crowd. On Easter Sunday (April 8) 2007, a crowd of about 800 was expected for a game against the Visalia Oaks, but when it was announced that the Arizona Diamondbacks were sending Randy Johnson to Modesto for a rehab start, it became a hot ticket. A sellout crowd of 4,192 packed the stadium. Johnson got a no-decision in a 2-1 Nuts’ win. Thurman Field’s standing room areas have been expanded since then, but the seating capacity remains 4,000. ... Leuris Gomez has been added to the starting rotation and will take the mound Monday in place of Nick Schnaitmann.

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2300.

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